Tony DeFrancesco is happy to be a national champion once again. But 16 months ago, he was just feeling blessed to be back in a dugout.
After being diagnosed with cancer during Spring Training last season, the Fresno Grizzlies manager stepped down from his post as the Astros' Triple-A manager, then affiliated with Oklahoma City. The New York native spent six weeks in Houston undergoing radiation and chemotherapy before heading back to Arizona to rest. But it wasn't long until he was back in cleats and a uniform.
Itching to return, DeFrancesco made it back to the diamond on May 27 and was happily managing players instead of prescriptions once again.
"You know when you hear words you're not supposed to hear, [you think] health No. 1, family, and then you come back [to work]," he said.
DeFrancesco finished out the season and then resumed his recuperation in the offseason before getting back to work at camp.
"Whenever I see Tony during Spring Training, he's in the weight room early, being the early bird," Fresno right-hander Chris Devenski said. "It's something that I like to do myself and have modeled my game off that by working my butt off."
After spending 10 seasons as a Minor League catcher, DeFrancesco moved to the dugout and has spent the past 21 years as a manager. There, he could do what he loves -- motivate players. Even before the 52-year-old rebounded from cancer, he was able to accomplish that.
"He's a real strong individual and a great manager," the Astros' No. 18 prospect said. "He's given me a lot of knowledge and inspiration."
Like Devenski, Houston's second-ranked prospect Mark Appel hasn't spent much time as DeFrancesco's protege, but it didn't take long for the manager to make an impression.
"Tony is great, he always keeps us focused on the task at hand," MLB.com's No. 44 overall prospect said. "Having Tony be at the helm of the ship, it's been a fun ride. I'm still getting to know him as a manager, just from the two months I've spent with him, but it's been a great ride so far."
In 2012, DeFrancesco got called up to the bigs to fill in as interim manager for Houston. He went 16-25 to close out the Astros' final season in the National League before returning to the Minors to continue to develop players.
"That's why I've been managing 21 years. Not too many guys can stick it out, but I enjoy the competition, that's why I keep doing it," he said. "I enjoy motivating, and hopefully, I'll get another chance down the road. But this is where I am right now. Like I said, winning is hard to replace."
On Tuesday, DeFrancesco joined former Columbus skipper Mike Sarbaugh as the only managers to win two national championships when his Grizzlies topped the Clippers, 7-0, at Southwest University Field. The Fresno manager first won the crown with Oakland affiliate Sacramento in 2007.
"Everybody has a story. I had some health issues. To be back on the field and in the dugout and feeling 100 percent and motivating players to go out and perform like they do, I think I got my edge back," he said. "You think it's easy to get back, it's not. It's been eight years since I got back here. A lot of ups and downs in between there, but this is very rewarding."
Kelsie Heneghan is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.